By Vera Samuel Anyagafu & Victor Gotevbe
The US out-going Consul General, Jeffery Hawkins has described his stay in Nigeria as rewarding. The CG who noted that Nigeria is a nation with tremendous brain power and people power, urged Nigerians to maintain efforts towards moving the country forward.
In this session, Hawkins who also disclosed things that Nigerian visa applicants’ could do differently to make the work of the US consulate’s consular officers easier, pointed out that although, Nigeria is a country with real affinity for the US, the US government is here to support Nigeria and is highly committed to ensuring that Boko Haram is fought to a standstill.
How would you describe your stay in Nigeria and what lessons have you learnt from your interaction Nigerian public officials?
My stay in Nigeria is rewarding and the challenge I found is politics, which I would adequately describe as a wonderful experience. It has been a wonderful one and my interaction with Nigerian public servers is quite interesting.
I keep using the same term to express it and with all sincerity it has been a tremendous experience for me and my family and I have really enjoyed living here. I am an American and not a Nigerian but I do consider myself a Lagosian. I have lived in this great city for three years and I loved every minute of it. Interactions that I have had with Nigerians are not just political aspects but across a spectrum, from Nigerian young people to entrepreneurs, civil society, and religious leaders. They have been important to Nigeria important to me personally.
Tremendous brain power
This is a nation with tremendous brain power and people power. This is a country the people made my stay wonderful. It is a country with real affinity for the US, I am not trying to convince Nigerians to engage with America, they want to engage with America and I want to engage with them.
A lot of Nigerians seeking visas from diplomatic missions, including the US mission patronise touts and other ‘self-styled consultants’. Is this practice an indictment on the consular sections of these missions ability to properly educate Nigerians on the missions’ procedures for obtaining visas?
I think we have tried very hard to inform the Nigerian public and there a number of people out there who are suffering from these people that are offering Nigerians a range of services, between quotes, that they are charging money for something that should not cost anything at all.
In some instances those services are illegal or could actually hurt the person’s chances of getting visa and yet because this seems a culture of needing to have aid or to be assisted in some way, a lot of Nigerians fall into the trap of these men.
To set one example, we are very conscious of wait times in the consulate, so the amount of time people have to wait to go in and if you are going for a son’s graduation or something sudden, like medical consultation, you cannot just sit around for a month or so waiting for the visa. We have automated system and we have worked very hard to ensure that our wait times hover around a week or two. The touts for example, will go in and control all the visa appointments and then sell them, but they do not cost anything.
It is free to book appointments, but they go in, reserve them and resell them to people, and we are working hard on ways to stop that, but they still do it. Not only is that they are charging people for what they should not have paid for, but is also taking up others parts and schedules.
So it is not actually the people but the applicants who will think there is no space and will have to wait for six weeks to have a visa because the touts have taken all and so we have a fairly high issue here because a lot of the appointments that are made are not real appointment and that gets in the way of visa applicants and that a big challenge.
And your question gets to the heart of it which is education is key to make people understanding what is wrong or right and what you need to do or not. The touts really hurt the function of the system. The reason the system is telling you there is no date is not because Nigerian travellers have filled up all the appointments, but illegitimate touts have taken all the appointments.
At the height of the campaign of terror by Boko Haram in parts of northern Nigeria, the US more or less sat on the fence. Does the ‘Black Hawk-Dawn’ still have a shilling effect on the US ability to robustly engage in such conflicts?
There appear to be a misunderstanding Nigerians have about the nature of our work in Nigeria. The US has done several trainings, provided equipment and continuously shared information with the Nigerian government, and worked with law enforcement, the Military etc., on a wide spectrum designed to help Nigeria. There was a certain moment and time the public perception was that maybe our support was not enough, but in reality that was not true and certainly is not true today.
But one thing I do want the leaders also to understand is that Nigeria is a Sovereign country and it is not up to the United State to solve Nigeria’s problem. Our job is to support Nigeria and not replace Nigeria and we share a very deep interest in partnering with Nigeria, for fact that we want to see Boko Haram defeated, because it is in our interest as well.
Do you have any advice for journalists who cover who cover the US diplomatic mission in Nigeria on how to better report your activities in Nigeria?
One thing that we have done very loftier and I would really like to see more of is traveling with the media a little bit more. You are credibly responsive when we have a press conference, when we have some important visitors coming in, you come in and cover. You do great interviews and certainly have done lots of good works. And as journalists you have wonderful experiences like the Ambassador is doing, pigging English on Wazobia and things like that. But I do not think that we have spent a whole lot of time in the field with journalists. It would have been great if you were doing some Dawn in Creek in the Niger delta or something. USAID is working on new health program somewhere, it would be nice to see like how our engagements actually are.
Ugly experiences some people may have had in the consulate relate a lot more to misunderstanding of the process and then again information process and that is something we need to work on. We did do a great event in Abuja where we had journalists come into the consular section and walked through every step of process.
What would the US consulate expect Nigerian visa applicants do differently to make the work of its consular officers and maybe the in-coming Consul General easier?
It is important for us to put out as much information to visa applicants on the process and it is also important for visa applicants to follow the process. And we would appreciate if we knew exactly how to get around that.
Another thing is really to understand the visa officers’ process and the fault is that applicants need to prove they are allegeable for visa and not the other way round in a short period. This is very important for applicants and it is also very important for the officers.
We are very conscious of wait time and it is important for the Nigerian applicants to approach the process in good sense and how they might demonstrate to the officer that they are allegeable for the visa. And finally for the people that get refused, I really want to say that far more Nigeria get visa than not.
People should not take it personally and we are not making assessment about whether the Nigerian is a good person, is honest Basically, the idea is that you need to demonstrate that you have to come back. However, if you do not get the visa is not a judgment on you.